Monday, July 10, 2017

NEW ZEALAND-15 LIONS-15



I'm still not sure if I have my breath back even two days after full time!  It really was quite the finish, and it has to be said, quite the series overall.

But if you don't mind I'll leave the lofty superlatives to the mainstream media.  As entertained as I felt as the match ended, I do remember hoping against all hope that the phrase "rugby is the real winner" would be avoided at all costs to the better known journos but alas it was like moths to a flame.

Yes, we have indeed seen epic contests over the past couple of weeks and both were extremely enjoyable to watch.  Whether or not they prove that shoe-horning these Lions Tours into the modern rugby calendar is worth it, well, we can debate that another day...as always with these write-ups I'll confine my scope to the 80 minutes of rugby in question.

Much like last week, I think it's best to cover the match using headings, though of course the topics will be somewhat different.

"THE INCIDENT"

I have this first because yes, it defined the match somewhat, but also because I want to get it out of the way.

The scores had just been levelled at 15-15 and all I could think of was the restart.  Surely we won't screw it up?  Well as it turned out we didn't even have to wait until the ball touched the ground!

Brian O'Driscoll was once on BT Sport's Rugby Tonight programme giving a clinic on how to compete for the ball at the breakdown.  One of the key elements he pointed out was (paraphrase) "the picture presented by the player for the referee".

Well, for me, this works both ways.  And although Romaine Poite may have eventually gotten this call correct, the picture he paints along the way is not a pretty one.

Never mind the logistics of what actually happened.  I'll leave that to the good folks at RugbyReferee.net - my concern is how Poite handled it.  As Ken Owens grabs then let's go of the ball, the official's arm goes up for a penalty straight away.  Next he looks at a replay on the big screen.  THEN he asks the TMO "Are you happy with penalty?" to which he receives the reply "Yes, I am."

Of course the ultimate decision is his, but all his actions up to this point lead us to believe he has awarded the penalty.  And yes, had he done so, no doubt we'd still be debating it now.  But somewhere between the chat with the TMO, which we all heard, and his chat with the two captains, he flat out changes his mind.

Again, he's entitled to do this, but for a referee who has been chosen (yet again) to officiate a decisive third test, it was not a good look for him to appear so indecisive.  Naturally I am happy with the way it turned out, but you certainly couldn't say "rugby was the winner" in how he handled it.

Right - to the rest of the match.

THE LIONS' DEFENCE

These next two headings are where the series was, er, not won by the World champions.  

One main feature of this tour has been the ability of any Lions XV to stick to the same defensive drill, and the opposition has found it very difficult to break down.  Yes, a narrow cordon around the breakdown does offer opportunities out wide, and yes, it was exploited at times, but certainly not enough times, and much credit has to go to Andy Farrell.

THE ALL BLACKS' ERRORS

The tourists' defensive structure definitely overlaps with the subject of the All Blacks' numerous errors.  You could say they "butchered" several  gilt-edged try-scoring opportunities, especially in the first half, but you could also rightly say that the knockons were at least in part down to the pressure they were under, especially from 9 to 13.

How many times have we watched our nations play New Zealand over the years (here in Ireland more than most) only to feel a sense of inevitability when they cross the whitewash, especially in the first half?  Here we go again, we'd say, they'll probably get to at least 50 points now?

If you watch a highlight reel of this match and only saw the two All Black tries, it would look to all intents and purposes like it was just another standard performance from them.  They were both quality scores in their own right; one, a crossfield kick from Beauden Barrett for his brother Jordie to bat down to a grateful Laumape - the other, a sweeping move off a lineout where this time it's Laumape supplying the quality offload in the tackle and eventually it's Jordie dotting down.

But hang on...after that second try, Beauden pulled the conversion wide - his fifth miss in the last two tests - which meant the scoreline was now only 12-6 and this lasted to the interval.  The longer the tourists stayed that close, the longer they knew they were in it, and the home side never got further away.

In fact, speaking of making errors off restarts, following all the tension through the halftime period regarding who got the next score, a penalty was awarded to the Lions straight away as Barrett couldn't get the kickoff to go ten metres and his teammates couldn't deal with the fact that their opposition chose to play on.

When Elliott Daly is on the pitch, that is indeed a costly mistake.  I still say if he can make kicks from over the halfway line, why not let him take all of them to keep his eye in?  Anyway...nail the booming kick he did, and it was superb.

My point on the All Black errors is this - some may have been forced by the Lions defence but others were not, and I really don't think they can afford to dwell too much on one "accidental offside" call when they analyse why this wasn't a successful series for them.

THE LIONS’ “EVERYTHING ELSE”

Of course the overall D wasn't the only good thing about the Lions' display.

Johnny Sexton did as Johnny Sexton does...using his skill set to the fullest to create space for his backline while at the same time making key tackles when necessary AND when all of the above comes at a physical cost, playing through the pain as much as he can, which is a lot.

Then there's Conor Murray - the act of "exiting" from the 22 is hardly considered sexy by most rugby observers but we definitely appreciate it here at Harpin Manor.  When the All Blacks blew their numerous try-scoring chances we still had much work to do to get the ball downfield and often the Munster 9 was at the heart of our escape.  Unfortunately it wasn't long before we'd be under the kosh again though that wasn't his fault!

And how about Tadhg Furlong?  Made that number three jersey his and barring injury I can't see how it could be taken off of him for the next tour.  Outstanding carries and his play around the park make him look like he's been doing it for years.

Before you think I'm only going to compliment the Irish players...Jonathan Davies was outstanding and my Player of the Series; solid as a rock both with and without the ball (kudos by the way to BOD for also acknowledging this), Maro Itoje put in displays that suggest he could well be leading this squad in 2021 and Anthony Watson had several strong carries including a particularly important exit after Murray went off.

Discipline was one thing that everyone said had to be fixed from last week, though the raw stats say we won shipping 13 pens and this time only drew after 5 (maybe some Kiwi fans say it should be 6 but I've already covered that!).  Still, it was good to see us on the right side of the referee.

But let's be honest...Warren's Wanderers weren't without their own errors.  Owen Farrell's penalty on 77m will be remembered as the, er, "match-drawer" and a magnificent kick it was, but overall I thought he was below par by his standards and it's hard not to play the "nepotism card" when wondering why he was kept on the park...Te'o was a good option off the bench; plus both Daly and Sexton were capable of taking that final kick.

In fairness, the errors weren't only coming from him - we had a couple of shocking lineout throws from Jamie George at vital times (something many said was a black mark against Rory Best) and even those I singled out for praise all made mistakes at some point or other.  If defensive ability will be remembered as the Lions' high point of this tour, then an inability to score tries has to at least crack the top two of the lows.

ANTI-CLIMAX?

Whatever about what the feeling was like after the final whistle, you certainly couldn't call the passage of play that went before it an anti-climax.  In many ways it was a microcosm of the series.  

Nine All Black phases where they tried pretty much every different way of advancing the ball imaginable, until eventually as Jordie Barrett gets a smidgin of space out on the wing - then in flies Liam Williams to not only hit him but grab and halt his progress too.  After a maul ensues, eventually it's Elliott Daly with the big shove getting them into touch and that was that.

Many suggested there should have been extra time to decide a winner.  I disagree and explained my reasoning in a separate post.

That said, it was a bit weird in the aftermath, and if it looked that way on TV from the other side of the word, I can only imagine what it was actually like at Eden Park (where the All Blacks hadn't failed to win for something like 73,000 years).  

But one thing is for sure, congratulations must go to Warren Gatland together with his coaching staff, as well as Sam Warburton and all the playing staff.  I may have reservations about the men in question in each case, but that's only because I  believe in leadership roles changing hands for different tours.

The fact remains that this will be chalked up as a successful tour overall and most of the rugby has been great to watch.   Who knows, maybe I'll care about it a little more in 2021, although the fact that Warren might go for a third term doesn't exactly sit well!!!

Of course the tour hadn't come without a cost...Stuart Hogg and Jared Payne to name but two.  But Leinster seem to be the hardest-hit single team as Henshaw, O'Brien and Sexton, all look as though their 2017/18 campaigns will start later than expected.  Now we're hearing Garry Ringrose is out too - I choose to blame the Lions tour for that too, haven't quite worked out how yet though, get back to me.

But for now, all we can do is look back over 330 days of Leinster, Ireland & the Lions rugby, dating back to Leinster's first preseason match against Ulster at Navan RFC.  Why did I do the maths?  Well yes, because I'm a full-on rugby nerd (the blog is proof enough of that I guess) but also because I wrote a post way back before the season started, noting just how long the season is.

There wasn't any silverware for my teams this time around, but there was plenty to cheer about, that's for sure.  Beating the All Blacks in Chicago, unearthing a whole new generation of top notch Leinster talent, and finally, er, not losing a three-match series against the All Blacks.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for following my harping throughout the season, as well as the many contributors who have helped keep the blog ticking over (including Michelle Tobin who has provided a cracking series of blogs from the tour itself).  We're going to turn down the dial on posting for a couple of weeks, but there's plenty of rugby to look forward to before the next season begins, not least of which is the Women's World Cup on Irish soil for the first time.

Until then, to hark back to a phrase I used to close a weekly post on SportsNews Ireland back in the day...

...may you continue to enjoy your rugby wherever you are.  JLP
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